In August 2010 we went to Russia (with a short side trip to Mongolia). This page is a very brief summary of the sixth and final part of the trip, to Moscow and St. Petersburg. We intend to return and fill in more details when we find time.
Thursday, 19 August: After a 10,600 km trans-Siberia rail journey from Vladivostok, we arrived at the main Moscow railway station in the late morning. Here the UK-USA contingent parted from the Australian group.
We were taken on a tour of the sights of Moscow Москва́ and environs, including the observation platform at the State University of Moscow. The University building was particularly impressive: we were told it contain both the teaching facilities (in the central tower) and the students’ residences (in the side sections).
The view of Moscow’s city centre was somewhat obscured by the weather (which featured intermittent rain), but now and then we got a good glimpse of the towers. We were not about to complain about the weather, given that a week or so before the temperatures had been in the mid-30s C and the air had been full of choking smoke from fires outside the city. At least the rain washed the last of the pollutants out of the air and left it quite clear, not even a lot of haze.
After the tour, we were dropped off near Red Square, where we went into the GUM store for lunch, shopping, and general looking around. The GUM was ornate, multi-level, and full of upmarket shops—very unlike the old Soviet days. Jean thought it was just the place for an Apple store, and she eventually discovered one (a reseller, not a “real” Apple store) on the third floor of one of the corridors. We briefly collected used their wifi to collect our email, but as the signal didn’t extend much outside the shop, any more than that would have been a bit conspicuous. Eric showed his iPad to the staff and they chatted for awhile about Apple things.
Back on the bus, we were taken to the Hotel Metropol, an Art Nouveau style luxury hotel that was first opened in 1901. Here we stayed for 3 nights.
The location was about as good as it gets, being a short walk from the Bolshoi Theatre in one direction and a slightly longer walk to the entrance to Red Square in the other. Alas, the Bolshoi was closed for renovations, so we were unable to go in.
Many in the group went off to local restaurants for dinner, but we didn’t have the energy, and Jean had a head cold. We bought club sandwiches at the bar and washed them down with a local brew. Not bad, though a bit overpriced.
Friday, 20 August: Met group in lobby after breakfast to walk to the tourist entrance for the Kremlin. Rain made this excursion less enjoyable than it should have been. We saw the interior of several ornate cathedrals. Our guide insisted on describing in excruciating detail all the features, their history and significance. We couldn’t hear her very well and Jean’s feet hurt; there was a lot of competition for the few places to sit down. After awhile we, and several other members of the group, went off on our own. We thus missed the Armoury and some other sights that we might have enjoyed, but the crowds were thick, the weather was lousy, Jean had a cold, and we were both thoroughly tired of sightseeing.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a multi-level underground shopping centre, where we found cheap pizza and other food on the lowest level.
In the afternoon most of the group went off to the Australian Embassy to vote in the federal elections. Jean stayed at the hotel; Eric went with the group into the Metro, where our leader led them in the wrong direction. Coming back, Eric bailed out; the others eventually found the Embassy and voted.
On one or both nights, most of the group went to the ballet or a concert or similar cultural event. We had not booked for these, figuring that one or both of us would be too tired to go (or have a cold), as turned out to be the case.
Saturday 21 August: We skipped the day tour to Zagorsk. The weather was good, so Eric walked to the river by a very convoluted course. This let him take different angles on St Basil cathedral, in good sunlight. As well as Red Square being nearly deserted, there were viewpoints at the bridge across the Moscow River, so he could photograph the fortress walls and domed churches of the Kremlin.
Jean got a 24 hour WiFi ticket while Eric was away, so she could catch up on some email, Facebook, and other things, as well as sorting photographs.
Around midday, we walked around some of the streets near our hotel. We stopped at the Bolshoi Theatre and walked around several city blocks. We found an interesting looking upmarket department store, which had an extensive upmarket food hall in the basement, much like the sort we remember David Jones or Myers having decades ago in Sydney.
Pizza was enough for lunch for us, again at the underground food court outside Red Square. The staff are obviously used to visitors who can not speak Russian. Pointing works fine.
The (Australian) tour group held its “celebratory dinner” that evening at the Metropol Hotel’s restaurant. This included a giant Caesar salad, followed by a rather ordinary chicken dinner. Afterwards some of our group went for a walk to Red Square, which is probably quite interesting on a Saturday evening.
Sunday, 22 August: We had an early start for a flight from Sheremetyevo Moscow Airport to St. Petersburg. Luckily traffic is very light early on Sunday morning.
To our surprise, check-in and efficient security screening took a fairly trivial amount of time. The terminal is newly renovated and comfortable, plus it has free WiFi. The Aeroflot flight was in a new and comfortably equipped Airbus A320-200, which had roomy seats (for economy). They even managed to serve up a small sandwich during the hour flight.
St Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703, was made the capital of Russia in 1712 and is perhaps the most spectacular city in Russia. It is known for its canals and intact centre of 18th-century buildings.
The airport was a new-looking three level design, although we did have to bus the short distance across the tarmac from the plane. We were out and headed for the tour bus fairly quickly.
Our guide was Alla, a former economics graduate, who (like many qualified Russians) got into tourism during the initial change to a capitalist society. Alla was excellent, never at a loss for descriptions and background material. Also along and helping were Lidmilla, and Thomas, our bus driver. Given how narrow some of the St. Petersburg streets (or lanes really) are, Thomas certainly earned his keep.
We drove to Peterhof, a pretty town surrounded by dachas and their little plots of vegetables. We visited the Grand Summer Palace of Peter the Great. The grounds are memorable for the fountains all over the extensive gardens that run down to the Baltic Sea. These fountains are all gravity fed from a river many kilometres away. Most of the ornamental fountains and their associated statues are golden, so the effect is spectacular in an ornate and overstated way. We took a lengthy walk through the grounds down to the sea.
Most of the others were having lunch in a restaurant in the grounds, but we had brought snacks with us. Eric skipped the tour of the interior, which was just as golden and opulent as the exterior, though without the fountains. Peter the Great was determined to convince the royalty of Western Europe that Russia was not a backwater, but indeed as cultured as Paris.
The bus then drove us back into the old part of St. Petersburg to our hotel, the Kempinski. The classical façade of the building has been faithfully retained, while the interior has been entirely reconstructed and decorated with antiques of the period. it has views of the Hermitage and is two minutes walk from Nevsky Prospect. Our room had a wonderful view of the city. It was a little short in luggage space, but did have a writing desk and chair, a very comfortable lounge chair, and a small sofa. In addition, the renovation had placed additional power points just where we needed them, at waist level behind bed lamps and by the desk. No bending over to seek a place to plug in gadgets. Best of all, free WiFi in all rooms.
Dinner was at our own expense, so we wandered alongside the canal, looking in each cafe we found. At the main cross street we found a Russian style tourist cafe that was not playing a TV loud. This was about as far as we wanted to walk after a long day. We were delighted to find their menus catered to tourists, with a short English translation of the dishes, so we ate there, despite the prices. We had a couple of different dishes of Russian dumplings (we had eaten similar on the train): Jean’s had the larger dumplings in a broth, whereas Eric’s was lots of very small dumplings with sour cream. We washed it down with Russian beer.
Monday, 23 August: This morning we travelled to Town of Pushkin, and visited the Alexander Palace, once home to Nicholas II, the last Tsar, and the nearby Catherine Palace. The Alexander Palace is still being restored (after deteriorating during communist days) and had little in the way of furnishings.
The Catherine Palace was the summer home of Catherine the First, Peter the Great’s second wife. The extensive palace had been badly damaged by the Nazi occupation, with wanton destruction while they used the building. Plus many items were looted. However the Russians restored it as an amazing tourist drawcard. The crowds inside the palace were herded along with little time to look at some of the smaller rooms.
A series of rooms have been restored, all gold gilt and carvings, inlaid timber veneer floors, paintings on ceilings, and some recovered paintings. The effect is stunning, in a totally overwhelming way. At one point you can look back through a series of hallways through perhaps five or six golden rooms. The largest room was utterly excessive, even for a ballroom.
We skipped the afternoon bus, boat, and walking tour. Dinner was a Russian Subway sandwich, shared between us.
Tuesday, 24 August: We had a walking tour of the Hermitage Museum and Art Gallery, the winter palace of the tsars. Now it is a great art gallery and museum. Although the building is quite close to the hotel, getting to the tour entry point involved a longish walk around to the other side. Our guide took us through at least five internally connected buildings in an overview walk, after which we could wander around on our own.
The entry rooms of the old palace are all marble, and we soon encountered a room decorated with malachite (pieced together), plus the usual gold trim around the ceiling. We saw several exhibits of tables and even pseudo paintings done as a mosaic of tiny fragments of semi precious materials. The inlaid timber floors were quite striking.
The third floor seems mostly devoted to the French Impressionists. An art lover could spend a week here and still not have time for a good look at each exhibit. We lasted a lot longer than we expected before feeling totally overwhelmed (and by then the crowds were getting thick).
We found a way out to the main square and looked at the surrounding buildings from a distance before heading back to the hotel. On our way, we passed two fairly new-looking toilet buses, apparently ordinary buses converted to contain several toilet cubicles. We debated spending the entry fee just to see what they were like inside, but decided not to bother.
Wednesday, 25 August: The long trip home: St. Petersburg to Moscow to Singapore to Brisbane. Overnight there, then on to Townsville on Thursday.